I just finished reading a very impressive review from Cheryl Bruno of Brian and Laura Hales’s Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding.
She’s absolutely right: the problem is that the Haleses superimpose 20th-century LDS understandings on 19th-century evidence. Thus, what doesn’t work with a modern understanding is minimized or ignored. It’s the same reaction I had when I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Interesting, sure, but hampered by a need to put everything into a Marxist dialectic.
The Hales book is an excellent example of Hayden White’s argument:
Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it, he must first prefigure the field–that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception. This poetic act is indistinguishable from the linguistic act in which the field is made ready for interpretation as a domain of a particular kind.
The Haleses have prefigured the field of study as correlated history, which severely constrains the “object of mental perception.” For my money, Emma Smith: Mormon Enigma and In Sacred Loneliness are far more useful in giving a “better understanding” of Mormon polygamy. But as Ms. Bruno suggests, the Haleses seem more interested in a reconstruction that comforts Mormons who are troubled by the history.